Roald Dahl’s ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ strikes right notes


— Roald Dahl’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” has always yearned to burst into song. The 1964 novel features a healthy serving of Oompa-Loompa verse ditties, and both of its film adaptations boast numbers by notable songwriters: Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse in the 1971 movie and Danny Elfman in the 2005 Tim Burton- Johnny Depp blockbuster.

Now it’s become clear that with these songs, Dahl’s characters were just warming up. Last month rumors circulated that Sam Mendes is planning to direct a Broadway musical of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” with music and lyrics by the “Hairspray” team of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman. (Reached by phone in New York and asked about the “Charlie” musical project, Shaiman said simply: “Yes, it exists.”)

‘The Golden Ticket’: An article last Sunday about the opera “The Golden Ticket,” based on Roald Dahl’s novel “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” said it was commissioned by Timothy O’Leary, Opera Theatre of St. Louis’ general director, Wexford Opera and American Lyric Theater. It was actually commissioned by American Lyric Theater and Felicity Dahl, Roald Dahl’s widow, and the world premiere production was co-produced by Opera Theatre of St. Louis and Wexford Opera. —

And this week, Willy Wonka made the leap to the lyric stage in Opera Theatre of St. Louis’ world premiere production of “The Golden Ticket,” the first full-length opera based on Dahl’s beloved book.

As it turns out, “Charlie” was destined to be a music drama: “Roald always felt it was the one book that should be made into a musical,” says Felicity Dahl, the author’s widow. “I don’t think he ever dreamt of an opera, but to be honest, I think he would be thrilled that it’s an opera, because classical music was his passion.”

The men Dahl entrusted to adapt her husband’s story were composer Peter Ash and writer Donald Sturrock. Sturrock met the Dahls in 1985 when making a BBC documentary about the writer. (He’s also finishing a Dahl biography, “Storyteller,” that will be published this fall.)

Since the author’s death in 1990, Sturrock and Ash have worked with the medical charity that Dahl founded and runs in her late husband’s name. Part of the Roald Dahl Foundation’s mission is to fund new music to be performed for children. Sturrock recalls getting a demo track in the mail from one of the many people wanting to set “Charlie” to music.

“I played it to Peter to see what he felt and he said, ‘I’d like to do it,’” Sturrock recalls, “Peter went for it like a dog with a bone, I can remember the look in his eye. He just came out and said, ‘I’d like to make an opera out of this story.’ It was clearly a project that sang to him.”

This was in 1997. Their first move was to ask Dahl.

“She said she would ‘let us have a go,’” Ash says during rehearsals at St. Louis’ Virginia Jackson Browning Theatre. “She told us, ‘Show me something. Excite me.’”

But before the men could fully dive into an operatic “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” they had to go to Los Angeles, where Ash and Sturrock were part of the creative team(as conductor and librettist, respectively) of Tobias Picker’s opera based on Dahl’s “The Fantastic Mr. Fox,” which premiered at Los Angeles Opera in 1998.

It was in Los Angeles that parts of the operatic “Charlie” started coming together. First, Ash says he began writing the part of Willy Wonka for baritone Gerald Finley, who played Mr. Fox at L.A. Opera. While in Los Angeles, Ash had a member of the Los Angeles Children’s Choir, who played one of the fox cubs in “The Fantastic Mr. Fox,” make a recording of the aria that would become “Charlie’s Song.”

Six years later, Sturrock was in L.A. again and the head of the Children’s Choir, Anne Tomlinson, told him she’d like to commission a new opera for children. “She told me, ‘I remember listening to that song in the rehearsal room at Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, and that was when I first got this idea: I’d like you and Peter to write something for us.’” That opera, “Keepers of the Night,” opened in 2007 at the Alex Theatre in Glendale.

In the nine years between “Mr. Fox” and “Keepers of the Night,” Ash and Sturrock kept working on the opera of “Charlie.” There were workshops of it at the National Theatre in London and a recording of extracts — plus a defining moment at a concert production in Manchester.

“It was billed as ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: A Concert Performance of a New Opera’ and people just didn’t see the small print,” Sturrock recalls. “It was a rather disastrous experience of an audience coming, thinking they were going to see the familiar music from the film. From that moment on we thought: We’ve got to give this another title so it’s quite clear this is something new and something unfamiliar.”

Soon after, the opera became “The Golden Ticket.” Ash says that for him, the difference between an opera and a musical is that instead of just songs, “The Golden Ticket” offers an entire world of sound. His job, he says, is to “find musical material and a sound-world which is compelling and mysterious and dangerous and funny, and then to find memorable gestures that kids can follow.”

Ash and Sturrock agree that the opera is geared toward children, but Timothy O’Leary, Opera Theatre of St. Louis’ general director, says it’s for families: “The opera world has never had a ‘Nutcracker,’ something people take their children to because they saw it when they were children. ‘Hansel & Gretel’ has served that purpose as well as anything in the opera world, but there’s always been a need for a new one. And so it’s sort of our dream that this will become that for many companies going forward.”

Daniel Okulitch, the Canadian bass-baritone who originated the title role in L.A. Opera’s “The Fly” (and who will sing as Figaro at L.A. Opera this fall), is creating the part of Willy Wonka in St. Louis.

Having already been part of a lyric adaptation of an iconic film, he insists an opera based on a movie has to be its own animal. James Robinson’s modest, $1-million production strives for efficiency and fluidity instead of Zeffirelli-esque opulence.

“I think the strength of this particular piece,” Okulitch says, “is that because we can’t literally represent things, we’re forced to hint at things. In film, they have CGI, they can do anything they want. Here, the chocolate river is fabric. It’s the music, not the visuals, that fills in the blanks.”

Ash does fill in the blanks, whether he’s drawing parallels with the aforementioned chocolate river by evoking Wagner’s “Das Rheingold,” equating the violent tantrums of bratty ticket winner Mike Teavee with the battle arias of Handel’s operas or simply making big musical gestures — such as trumpet fanfare when the gates of Wonka’s factory open, or orchestral “uh ohs” when the Oompa-Loompas portend something bad is going to happen — that require no musical scholarship to understand.

Clearly, the story of “Charlie” still enchants readers 46 years after it was written: translated into more than 40 languages, its publisher says there are 4 million copies now in print in the United States. Ash, Sturrock and Okulitch all mentioned the book’s appeal to the imagination, and O’Leary, who commissioned the production (along with Wexford Opera and American Lyric Theater), says if “The Golden Ticket” connects with audiences, it is because “the beauty of operatic music takes us to the deeper parts of our imagination.”

Despite the long odds new operas face, the creative team behind “The Golden Ticket” imagines a bright future for the piece. For Felicity Dahl, who stood up to the Warner Bros. lawyers and insisted that this long gestating opera would not interfere with the profits of the recent film or the upcoming musical, this new incarnation of “Charlie” is a tribute to Roald Dahl’s fondness of music and storytelling: “My hope is that like his books drew the children of the world into becoming literate and great readers, with a bit of luck, this opera will start the children wanting to go to opera, rather than watch TV.”